Sunday, 11 October 2015

No.73 - George Romero - Part III: THE CRAZIES (1973)


By 1973, having suffered the debilitating effect of unreliable backing and distribution for THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA and then SEASON OF THE WITCH (causing him to virtually disown them), George Romero returned to the full-throttle horror exploitation realm that had made his name with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in 1968.

THE CRAZIES is a tense, energetic horror thriller with the premise of what would happen should a small town (Evans City) be infected by a chemical bio-weapon that releases uncontrolled homicidal and erotic impulses in its populace. This leads to the declaration of martial law and rapid mobilisation of the army into the town in anonymous white bio-suits and gas-masks - an invasion by occupying forces. The film essentially follows three factions: the infected crazed citizens, the army and those civilians unaffected but unwilling and suspicious to be compliant with the state’s heavy-handed intervention. On this level, THE CRAZIES works well as a mirror of the ongoing war in Vietnam still raging at that time; the army having to react in-the-moment with no clear idea of their mission or how to resolve the crisis, the public not only mistrusting and resisting them but also incubating hidden symptoms that could rise up at any point.

The movie features themes personal to Romero’s view of modern society that he would return to often in the future. THE CRAZIES features no single crusading hero as 1980s films would capitalise on later. Rather than a Schwarzenegger, Stallone or even the lone ‘everyman’ protagonist Bruce Willis, Romero focuses on rag-tag groups of people trying to work together amid paranoia, the dynamics of leadership struggle and a terrifyingly unpredictable foe in an apocalyptic scenario that could overwhelm us and destroy civilisation if we cannot unite.

The story’s genesis was the first ten pages of ‘The Mad People’, a script written by a friend of the team Paul McCullough. The idea of a released bio-weapon resulting in regional quarantine and the imposition of the army was enough for Romero to make it a springboard for his own take. The film was also a chance to work again with exploitation producer, Lee Hessel, who’d made money from a soft porn film called CRY UNCLE and was keen to expand his range.

THE CRAZIES was filmed in the real Evans City, which was also used in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Romero’s team had a budget of $270,000, which although minuscule by studio standards, was more than he was used to. It became his first film shot on 35mm and with SAG union rates of pay. This still had to be stretched thinly, so  much use was made of real locations and real townsfolk in the cast. There were no stuntmen on the gig but Romero had already built up great creative relationships with his pyrotechnic team of two guys whose background was simply an expertise with fireworks. All the fire, immolation and flamethrower effects were supervised by the two men.

The director also couldn’t afford such standard filming equipment as dolly tracks, yet this was a limitation that became a plus; the pace of the film is superbly cut due to not having the ability to utilise long tracking takes. Instead, Romero’s years of skilled, energetic editing (his favourite part of the creative process) from the scores of fast-paced commercials he made with Latent Image gives the film a fast, driven rhythm, always cutting on action and piling on the detail. He shot thirty to forty set-ups a day, a phenomenal workload, but it pays off handsomely with multiple angles on the scenes and a relentless kinetic movement of the plot.

Fans of Romero’s zombie cinema will recognise the enjoyable imperiousness of Richard France as one of the army scientists. He lends the film a grandeur and command similar to his eye-patched, laboriously patronising expert in DAWN OF THE DAWN.

Bill Hinzmann, the opening graveyard zombie of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD again served as director of photography. In fact the all hands pitching in work ethic of Romero’s team was in full evidence here despite the relative increase in the budget. All of the foley effects (sounds recorded after-the-fact) and extras’ dialogue were recorded by Romero, Hinzmann and Mike Gornick in Latent Image’s basement.

THE CRAZIES has some stand-out horror moments amidst the military/civilian politics, some of which delve queasily into primal and taboo areas. The opening scene of children discovering their dead mother and watching helplessly as their father runs amok setting the house on fire powerfully sets the awful tone of the sudden lawless break-down of family security.  There’s a chillingly serene granny stabbing a soldier to death with her knitting needle. (Is no-one safe from the corrupting corrosiveness of this water-carried infection?) Evidently not as we see when Lynn Lowry (later a memorable nurse in Cronenberg’s SHIVERS) willingly gives herself to incestuous sex with her father, a cringingly potent sequence that would never have been permitted in a studio picture.

Unfortunately, unlike the bio-hazard in the film, Romero’s fourth movie suffered an evaporation on release into box office doldrums. The demoralisation resulted in him taking a number of years away from that world, spending three of them working in TV. However, the period introduced him to producer Richard Rubinstein, an alliance that would begin to bear fruit later with MARTIN and DAWN OF THE DEAD…


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